Impressions: Call of Duty: Black Ops

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare will live forever in my heart as the best time I’ve ever spent online with friends shooting other groups of friends in the face. Oh, and the campaign was pretty decent too. Really, that’s why I’m interested in the franchise. From the very beginning, it’s all been about the characters, the journey, and the fun to be had making it to the end. They may be disjointed and full of some truly abysmal plot holes, but I just enjoy tearing through war like it’s my business.

Unfortunately, World at War and Modern Warfare 2 didn’t exactly light my fire. With the announcement of Call of Duty: Black Ops and Treyarch’s turn to take the wheel again, I was hopeful that the underappreciated company would learn from Infinity Ward’s unnecessary haughtiness and knock them off their high horse. After completing Black Ops’ ADD-laden campaign, I am pleased with what I’ve seen, and more optimistic for the future of the franchise, that is, if Treyarch could just take the wheel once and for all. At least they know they’re playing second-fiddle to the bros of the highly overrated “big dogs” Infinity Ward. And you know what? They’re cool with that. If they keep on delivering big on their promises, I will be too.

You step into the shoes of one Alex Mason (Avatar’s Sam Worthington), being interrogated throughout the entire length of the game. The numbers…they haunt him. What do they mean? Why are there numbers constantly running through his head? And why is he so fixated on Viktor Reznov? What is this obsession he harbors for the Russian legend? These are the questions you’ll undoubtedly be asking as you make your way through the extremely punctuate campaign (we’re talking 6 to 8 hours if you really stretch it), strapped to a chair, surrounded by TVs, equipment, and the harsh lights from the room outside your location.

These segments are interlaced between the seemingly random set-pieces you will navigate for each mission. You won’t always be playing as Mason, but as he is the instrumental and most influential character of the game, you will be for a good 90% of the time. Supporting characters like Hudson and Woods offer interesting, if not clichéd back story to this black op initiative, where facts are as obscure as a polite player on Xbox Live.

Because the interrogators are attempting to glean pertinent information from missions and operations lodged within Mason’s brain for an ultimate purpose (revealed later on in the game), you will be skipping from time period to time period, spending as little as a half hour in each war, location, and memory. In this, it’s a little reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed, except these different times (Vietnam War, prison in Vorkuta, “present-day”) never join together to form a cohesive whole. And I never thought I’d say this, but I like it that way.

Previously, I would find myself cursing all the time I would spend in one boring location, but as Black Ops constantly changes scenery, it also kept my attention in ways that only constant refreshment of the narrative location can. One moment you’re attempting to assassinate Fidel Castro, and the next, you’re in a limo on your way to the Pentagon. It makes sense when you step back and evaluate the plot you’re being fed, but I felt this bite-sized storytelling finally made a Call of Duty game perfect for picking up, playing for a few minutes, and putting down again when time didn’t permit the completion of another level. I’m pressed for time, and I find it hard to concentrate when I must push through the same bland woods and slate-grey surfaces one second more. It felt almost like playing through a series of Call of Duty vignettes, and it was great.

Speaking of colors, I got the sense that this was possibly the most “colorful” entry in the series, in every meaning of the word. Not only did vibrant sunsets, purple smoke, lush greenery, and the sterile clean of the Pentagon immediately grab my attention, but the variety of vehicles available to command was appreciated as well. A helicopter, Blackbird, boat…you name it, you can take control. I realize this isn’t exactly a first, but they kept things from becoming too stale after being forced to hide behind cover for too long. And I’ll never forget swaggering down the river, blowing up Vietnamese forces and unfortunate people as “Sympathy for the Devil” blared over explosions, screams, and chatter from my comrades. It was some strange stuff, but also very raw and powerful. I was glued to my screen. Oddly enough, one thing that really grabbed my attention was the fact that a 2011 Jeep Wrangler was rolling around back in the 1960s. I know there’s a partnership going on there, guys, but come on. Really?

Aside from some of the bizarre visuals and decadent aural treats of songs from the period (“Fortunate Son” included), I found myself drawn to the trademark quickness and brutality of Treyarch’s offerings. This is a graphic game, through and through, and will certainly open your eyes – however small – to the brutalities of war, no matter how glamorized and beefed-up it may be to sell more copies. Black Ops doesn’t need a pointless controversy like “No Russian” to tell an intense and compelling (very conspiracy theory-laden) story. It just needs shots through the head, brain bits flying through the air, brutal blows, and shocking deaths before your eyes. When it grabs your attention, it holds you there, and you keep playing to see how things will unfold. Unfortunately, the loose ends are tied up a little more neatly than I would have wanted, but for what it is, I thoroughly enjoyed this story.

Beyond the campaign, you’re introduced to your first taste of the favorite mode seen in World at War, Zombies. I won’t spoil the surprise, but if you haven’t sneaked a peek at the mode from the game’s main menu, then a very…presidential adventure awaits upon completion of the campaign. Beyond that, you can play the classic game you know and love with new maps and new reasons to fall in love all over again, like a top-down retro-styled shooter found via messing with the computer in the interrogation room. This computer is home to a ton of fun little Easter eggs, and it’s a mini-game in itself to try out different passwords, DOS commands, and keywords to see what you can find next, including the full version of the classic text adventure Zork!

Between the campaign and the extra zombie goodies, I almost forgot to mention that, of course, there are a multitude of multiplayer modes to partake in with friends. Just kidding. How could I forget? Gamers will always clamor for formidable multiplayer in a Call of Duty game.

If you’re a Call of Duty vet, you’ll find enough new components here to get excited about beyond simply some new perks and maps to explore. And the most notable addition of which are wager matches, which you can win and bet a new in-game currency from. Just like you would automatically earn new weapons and whatnot upon ranking up and earning XP, you now have the option to purchase the new weapon with your accumulated COD points. You can also buy new perks, killstreaks, weapon attachments, and all the rest of the standard issue supplies you’ll need for kicking butt and taking names from some kid overseas. You can now outfit yourself to your liking, customize your reticule, player card, camo, etc. There are plenty of new selections available to get you looking more like you’d prefer, and as an avatar junkie, I know I appreciate it.

It’s all very familiar, but has a much “tighter” feel to it, if you can get partied up and stay that way. Seems as though there are some kinks to work out, but not on the grandiose scale of Modern Warfare 2, not just yet…you’ll rank up with enough points after matches, yadda yadda yadda. Gamers looking for friendly matches of Team Deathmatch, Search and Destroy, etc., look no further, Treyarch’s got you covered, and how.

Call of Duty: Black Ops is an often erratic, but still enjoyable little package. Its explosive, conspiracy theorist-laden campaign feels like something new for both the series and fans to get used to, even with silly inconsistencies such as Jeeps and weapons that don’t belong in the period it takes place in. Yet, it’s so fast-paced and action-packed that you probably won’t mind such anachronisms as its a complete thrill ride through and through. While it may take itself a bit too seriously at times, I think Treyarch has more than earned their time in the spotlight with this tightened, feature-packed Call of Duty, and I’m hoping they have their time to shine once again in the very near future, as long as they don’t let it go to their heads.

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